By Sabina Mollot
Following a news report in The Villager last week that the main campus of Mount Sinai Beth Israel would close (leaving some services like the ambulatory care center and the methadone clinics), the hospital, while not outright denying a closure of that facility, insisted that services will continue and, in fact, be enhanced.
Meanwhile, local elected officials have chimed in to say they’d press the Mount Sinai system for some transparency on its plans. This includes Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh who said that even if Mount Sinai is planning a closure, there is a lengthy process the mammoth medical system would have to go through at the state level, so nothing should be considered a done deal.
The Villager story, which cited three (and later four) anonymous nurses, who’d been warned about a looming closure but were instructed to keep their mouths shut, followed a story in Capital New York last fall in which Mount Sinai’s executives only admitted they wanted to downsize.
Another story this week in Crain’s confirmed a downsizing, citing the nurses’ union, saying it was expected to be formally announced in a couple of weeks.
The report noted that “Mount Sinai Beth Israel and its affiliates lost $85.6 million in the first nine months of 2015, according to recent financial statements. That red ink exceeded a budgeted $75.6 million loss and rivaled the hospital’s $90.7 million loss for all of 2014.”
Last week, Dorie Klissas, a spokesperson for Mount Sinai, issued a statement in response to the report of a planned closure, but didn’t answer any questions about what would be happening.
“Given the importance of Beth Israel to the community, we understand why there are a lot of rumors and misinformation circulating,” the statement read. “However, Mount Sinai is 100% committed to serving the community and offering the highest level of patient care. We are working on a plan which will enhance existing services and develop new facilities in the Beth Israel community. Until then, we will not have any further comment. In the meantime, there will be no disruption in any of our patient care services.”
This week, two employees of the hospital who spoke with Town & Village, also anonymously, said while rumors of closing have swirled for years, any plans they’ve heard about regarding the future have had a tendency to keep changing.
Additionally, since the takeover by the Mount Sinai system in 2013, the hospital has steadily hemorrhaged employees, mainly administrators and physicians, who’ve either been laid off or left for other hospitals without getting replaced. The quitting has been especially frequent as of late, according to one nurse who said she’s been employed at Beth Israel for many years.
“The doctors I think have taken the biggest hit,” she said, adding that nurses have been told they’d end up elsewhere in the Mount Sinai system. However, this would not necessarily be with the same benefits or pensions. The nurses union has been meeting with the hospital, although a rep for the union didn’t have much to say beyond the fact that it was “monitoring” the situation.
“Everyone’s walking on eggshells,” the nurse said. “It’s sad for the patients. While they’re in their beds, this can’t make them feel good.”
What employees had been told for a while, she said, was that the hospital wanted to sell the main facility at 16th Street and First Avenue, because it was “too old” and could be better utilized by a developer as condos. Instead there would be a smaller hospital with fewer beds, possibly even at the Eye & Ear Infirmary on East 14th Street, which Mount Sinai also runs. The nurse said she doesn’t believe that building is fully utilized.
But, she added, “Then we were told that’s not happening.”
Meanwhile, another building with housing and offices on First Avenue, Gilman Hall, she added, is already being cleared out. “Everyone has to be out by June.”
The other employee, however, said she suspects there will just be a downsizing, with fewer beds, “moving to an outpatient model.”
Mount Sinai Beth Israel, still known locally as Beth Israel, is hardly the only hospital to suffer financially in recent years. City-run hospitals have also been hit by the influx of urgent care centers to open throughout the city. Additionally, Beth Israel, while situated across First Avenue from Stuyvesant Town, also serves many low income patients from the Lower East Side and Chinatown.
Meanwhile, following countless calls to his office from worried members of the community, Kavanagh has pointed out that for the hospital to make any major changes in service, including a closure, “they will need to be approved by the state (Department of Health).” This, he stressed, meant nothing would be happening any time soon.
“They have been saying publicly that they are going to enhance (services),” said Kavanagh. “We’re going to hold them to that. We need to get the hospital to formally say what they’re proposing in a public forum. I’m not taking their words for it. Our job is to make sure services are not diminished and their formal obligation as a matter of public policy is to make sure the healthcare needs of the community are being met.”
As for the hospital’s verbal commitment to open some kind of new facility, Kavanagh said, “I don’t want to prejudge that. Before there’s any conclusion, we’re going to need a lot of details about the proposal. There does need to be a process. This is not a done deal. This will not be quick.”
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer was another one to say not-so-fast to any potential plans for a closure, pointing out that there are existing limitations to what that location can legally be used for.
“It’s my understanding that long-approved site plans for the hospital’s location are restricted to a ‘large-scale community facility’ and can’t be changed without a ULURP process,” Brewer said in an official statement. “So I’m hopeful that a significant health care function there can be preserved, and that’s what I’ll fight for.”
Asked for his thoughts, Mayor Bill de Blasio, in a statement from spokesperson Karen Hinton, said he was “committed to ensuring communities have the health care facilities they need and preventing the sudden closure of hospitals.” The statement added, “The health care industry is changing rapidly and we must be prepared to protect patients and healthcare workers alike.”
De Blasio, during his run for mayor, had protested the closures of St. Vincent’s and Long Island College Hospital.
Council Member Dan Garodnick also weighed in to say he was “deeply concerned about the possibility of losing beds at Beth Israel. This hospital is integral to our community, and we deserve much more clarity from Mount Sinai Beth Israel about their plans.”